Seminaries look to update ministers’ skill set

For more than 200 years, Andover Newton Theological School has
trained future pastors to have expertise in biblical studies, pastoral
care and preaching. But the nation's oldest school of theology has
decided that in today's world, that is no longer enough, and other
schools are starting to agree.

Under a recent curriculum overhaul,
ANTS students must prove competency in key skills for the 21st-century
church, including high-tech communication and interfaith collaboration.
Students still study theology, but unless they can use it to help others
find meaning, they don't graduate.

"This is not a case for
fine-tuning the [educational] model," Andover Newton President Nick
Carter said at a regional meeting October 23 of the United Church of
Christ. "We really have to reinvent it; the profession has totally

Andover Newton's new standards are part of a larger
movement to reconsider what future pastors need to learn. Curriculum
revisions are underway at about a quarter of the 262 institutions in the
Association of Theological Schools, according to ATS Executive Director
Daniel Aleshire.

A generation ago, seminaries were less eager for
curriculum reform as they felt pastors could learn practical skills on
the job, Aleshire said. But now, churches increasingly need pastors to
arrive ready to tackle a myriad of challenges, from addressing
alcoholism and domestic violence to creating access for the disabled.

lot of schools are rethinking how they educate religious leaders," said
Aleshire. "There is a perception that ministry education is not just
the accumulation of courses in the old disciplinary patterns. It has to
be something more dynamic."

Around the country, schools are
testing new approaches to theological education. In California,
Claremont School of Theology encourages would-be Christian pastors to
take some courses alongside future rabbis and imams at an institution
named Claremont Lincoln University.

In Illinois, Meadville Lombard
Theological School reformed its curriculum to help students at the
Unitarian Universalist seminary get more hands-on ministry experience
early in their education.

In Catholic seminaries, Aleshire noted,
curricula have evolved over the past 20 years to help future priests
reflect on issues of identity and "celibacy as a way of life and

"You might not find a course with that title," Aleshire
said, "but if you looked at what they did over seven days (in their
studies), you'd find a lot of time spent on those issues."

reform is driven by several forces, Aleshire said. Since more and more
students have jobs and are attending seminary part-time, they need
courses to be interchangeable and not part of a rigid sequence. And
because churchgoers and seminarians come from ever-more diverse
religious backgrounds, pastoral training is evolving to help them engage
multiple traditions.

Schools are experimenting to figure out what
works. At Andover Newton, students learn "interpretation" in a way that
covers more than Christian readings of the Bible, such as studying the
Old Testament alongside rabbinic students from nearby Hebrew College.

broader approach helps prepare future pastors to function effectively
in a pluralistic world where Christian assumptions can't be taken for
granted, Carter said. "It actually turned out better rabbis and better
Christian ministers when we were able to deal with the difficult texts"
from each other's traditions, Carter said.

As training takes new
forms, benchmarks are evolving as well. To evaluate curriculum reforms,
ANTS administrators plan to contact congregations that are led by ANTS
alumni. They'll ask how well pastors are doing in key competency areas,
such as "embodiment," which expects pastors to practice what they preach
and offer a convincing witness.

Based on what they hear, Carter
said, the school will continue to tweak the program so that churches get
the kinds of ministers they need.—RNS

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist, ordained United Church of Christ minister, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

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